I’d have to characterize myself as a good driver, primarily because someone has to do it and it sure isn’t going to be anybody who’s ever watched me drive.
I learned to drive as a teenager growing up in Miami. The experience provided me with an appreciation for intense traffic, a familiarity with high-speed interstates, and a convenient excuse whenever anyone accused me of recklessness.
“Hey, I learned to drive in Miami,” I’d tell anybody who objected to my wheel-screeching turns and frequent lane changes. “Get over it.”
(I use an advanced sign language to communicate this to those in other vehicles who can’t hear me; my extended middle finger means “hey,” and the upward motion of my hand means the rest).
While defensive driving was stressed in most parts of the country, those of us living in South Florida learned offensive techniques as a means to safe motoring. The peculiar demographics of that area made anything like considerate driving habits a sign of weakness.
In the late 1960s, about a third of the Miami population was elderly, and chronically crept along the highway at 15 m.p.h. under the limit. They were careful to keep to the left passing lane in case they needed to pull into the median for the sudden urge to reminisce about their grandchildren.
Another third of the city was made up of Cuban refugees. These folks tended toward the middle lanes, looking for the safety in numbers that successfully got them across the Florida Straights piloting a raft made of tennis balls. They never used turn signals (because the rafts didn’t have them) and they ignored STOP signs (because they weren’t in Spanish).
The final third of the city was made up of narcotics dealers and other criminals. These drivers typically used the right lane, the break-down lane, the shoulder and the adjacent, grassy right-of-way to evade pursuing police cars. They created exit ramps as needed, or would simply launch themselves off a bridge and into the Intracoastal Waterway, especially if movie cameras were filming nearby.
To survive in this frightening mix of questionable skills, I learned a motoring style I consider both efficient and rarely fatal. I pay such acute attention to the traffic conditions around me that I block out all other stimuli as I maneuver my vehicle down the road. I don’t listen to the radio. I don’t talk on my cell phone. I don’t rubber-neck at the accidents I leave in my wake. Instead, I’m focused like a laser on getting where I intend to go, bringing most of my passengers and their limbs safely with me.
The concentration this requires is sometimes lost on those who ride along with me. Just this weekend, for example, my wife and I took a trip uptown to a yarn shop she wanted to visit. She had the directions and I had the steering wheel. I had reluctantly agreed to listen to the podcast she brought along, at least until we had to start watching for signs directing us to the right neighborhood.
“Turn that off. I have to really concentrate now,” I told Beth as we approached our destination.
“You can’t look for the right exit with this on?” she asked incredulously.
“No,” I answered. “I can’t.”
“You realize, of course, that auditory signals entering your ear canal should have little or no impact on your ability to see,” she reasoned.
“Quiet,” I snapped. “You’ll kill us all.”
The podcast went silent, leaving only Beth’s directions to be heard above the hum of the engine. Bear left. Turn right. Merge quickly, then get into the left lane. Don’t run over that baby carriage. Look out. Look out! LOOK OUT!!!
I did indeed look out, and what I saw was the yarn shop that was our goal. I pulled through the parking lot and into a spot just outside the store’s entrance. Beth was a nervous wreck, but we had successfully arrived where we intended in record time, if records were kept for routine crosstown drives.
After the yarn shop, we wanted to visit a new bakery we recently found in the same area. I needed to make a left out of the lot, despite a bunch of traffic coming at us from both directions.
“At least get out into the center merge lane,” Beth advised. “That’ll make it easier to turn left.”
“No,” I answered. “What if someone wants to use it as a turn lane? We’ll collide.”
As I waited for just the right moment to take advantage of an opening, Beth launched into her much-rehearsed testimony about the advantages of using the “merge lane.”
Years ago, when she was a newspaper reporter, she rode with a highway patrolman for a feature she was writing. He told her that the proper way to make a left on a three-lane highway was to creep across to the middle of the road when you can, then merge and accelerate from there into the far lane.
I would counter that such a maneuver is just asking for a head-on collision.
Since I’m the driver, it’s my decision to execute this turn as I see fit. Her job is to get mad at my reluctance to recognize her long-ago patrolman as the ultimate authority for how I should make a left.
After our stop at the bakery, we drove home in silence, allowing me to concentrate to my heart’s delight. We arrived at our house about 45 minutes later, our marriage scratched and dented but my 2008 Civic completely unmarred.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a reckless driver. I’ve been involved in and caused numerous wrecks.
But I know what I’m doing, and I know how I want to do it. The elderly and Cubans and drug kingpins have taught me well. If you’ll be an offensive driver, people will notice and watch out for you. If instead you’re defensive, I’d advise that you prepare for impact.